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TED Fellows Retreat 2015

Christine Sun Kim: The enchanting music of sign language

Filmed:

Artist and TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim was born deaf, and she was taught to believe that sound wasn't a part of her life, that it was a hearing person's thing. Through her art, she discovered similarities between American Sign Language and music, and she realized that sound doesn't have to be known solely through the ears -- it can be felt, seen and experienced as an idea. In this endearing talk, she invites us to open our eyes and ears and participate in the rich treasure of visual language.

- Sound artist, composer
Through visual art, composition and performance, Christine Sun Kim explores ways of transmuting sound and silence. Full bio

Interpreter: Piano, "p,"
is my favorite musical symbol.
00:15
It means to play softly.
00:19
If you're playing a musical instrument
and you notice a "p" in the score,
00:22
you need to play softer.
00:26
Two p's -- even softer.
00:28
Four p's -- extremely soft.
00:30
This is my drawing of a p-tree,
00:38
which demonstrates
00:41
no matter how many thousands
upon thousands of p's there may be,
00:43
you'll never reach complete silence.
00:47
That's my current definition of silence:
00:50
a very obscure sound.
00:53
I'd like to share a little bit
00:56
about the history
of American Sign Language, ASL,
00:58
plus a bit of my own background.
01:01
French sign language was brought
to America during the early 1800s,
01:05
and as time went by,
mixed with local signs,
01:11
it evolved into the language
we know today as ASL.
01:15
So it has a history of about 200 years.
01:19
I was born deaf,
01:23
and I was taught to believe
that sound wasn't a part of my life.
01:27
And I believed it to be true.
01:32
Yet, I realize now
that that wasn't the case at all.
01:37
Sound was very much a part of my life,
01:41
really, on my mind every day.
01:44
As a Deaf person living
in a world of sound,
01:50
it's as if I was living
in a foreign country,
01:54
blindly following its rules,
customs, behaviors and norms
01:57
without ever questioning them.
02:01
So how is it that I understand sound?
02:13
Well, I watch how people
behave and respond to sound.
02:18
You people are like my loudspeakers,
and amplify sound.
02:22
I learn and mirror that behavior.
02:26
At the same time,
I've learned that I create sound,
02:28
and I've seen how people respond to me.
02:31
Thus I've learned, for example ...
02:34
"Don't slam the door!"
02:36
"Don't make too much noise when
you're eating from the potato-chip bag!"
02:40
(Laughter)
02:43
"Don't burp,
02:44
and when you're eating,
02:46
make sure you don't scrape
your utensils on the plate."
02:47
All of these things
I term "sound etiquette."
02:50
Maybe I think about sound etiquette
02:55
more than the average hearing person does.
02:58
I'm hyper-vigilant around sound.
03:01
And I'm always waiting
in eager nervous anticipation
03:07
around sound, about what's to come next.
03:11
Hence, this drawing.
03:13
TBD, to be decided.
03:16
TBC, to be continued.
03:19
TBA, to be announced.
03:22
And you notice the staff --
03:28
there are no notes contained in the lines.
03:30
That's because the lines
already contain sound
03:32
through the subtle smudges and smears.
03:36
In Deaf culture,
movement is equivalent to sound.
03:40
This is a sign for "staff" in ASL.
03:49
A typical staff contains five lines.
03:52
Yet for me, signing it
with my thumb sticking up like that
03:55
doesn't feel natural.
03:58
That's why you'll notice in my drawings,
I stick to four lines on paper.
04:00
In the year 2008, I had the opportunity
to travel to Berlin, Germany,
04:05
for an artist residency there.
04:09
Prior to this time,
I had been working as a painter.
04:12
During this summer, I visited
different museums and gallery spaces,
04:17
and as I went from one place to the next,
04:21
I noticed there was no visual art there.
04:23
At that time, sound was trending,
and this struck me ...
04:26
there was no visual art,
04:31
everything was auditory.
04:33
Now sound has come into my art territory.
04:37
Is it going to further
distance me from art?
04:41
I realized that doesn't
have to be the case at all.
04:45
I actually know sound.
04:48
I know it so well
04:49
that it doesn't have to be something
just experienced through the ears.
04:52
It could be felt tactually,
04:55
or experienced as a visual,
04:58
or even as an idea.
05:00
So I decided to reclaim ownership of sound
05:05
and to put it into my art practice.
05:08
And everything that I had been
taught regarding sound,
05:13
I decided to do away with and unlearn.
05:16
I started creating a new body of work.
05:21
And when I presented this
to the art community,
05:24
I was blown away with the amount
of support and attention I received.
05:27
I realized:
05:32
sound is like money,
05:35
power, control --
05:39
social currency.
05:42
In the back of my mind, I've always felt
that sound was your thing,
05:47
a hearing person's thing.
05:51
And sound is so powerful
05:56
that it could either
disempower me and my artwork,
05:58
or it could empower me.
06:02
I chose to be empowered.
06:05
There's a massive culture
around spoken language.
06:08
And just because I don't use
my literal voice to communicate,
06:13
in society's eyes
it's as if I don't have a voice at all.
06:18
So I need to work with individuals
who can support me as an equal
06:24
and become my voice.
06:28
And that way, I'm able to maintain
relevancy in society today.
06:32
So at school, at work and institutions,
06:36
I work with many
different ASL interpreters.
06:39
And their voice becomes
my voice and identity.
06:43
They help me to be heard.
06:48
And their voices hold value and currency.
06:54
Ironically, by borrowing out their voices,
07:04
I'm able to maintain
a temporary form of currency,
07:06
kind of like taking out a loan
with a very high interest rate.
07:10
If I didn't continue this practice,
07:18
I feel that I could just
fade off into oblivion
07:20
and not maintain
any form of social currency.
07:23
So with sound as my new art medium,
07:29
I delved into the world of music.
07:32
And I was surprised to see
the similarities between music and ASL.
07:35
For example,
07:41
a musical note
07:42
cannot be fully captured
and expressed on paper.
07:45
And the same holds true
for a concept in ASL.
07:48
They're both highly spatial
and highly inflected --
07:53
meaning that subtle changes
08:02
can affect the entire meaning
08:04
of both signs and sounds.
08:06
I'd like to share with you
a piano metaphor,
08:11
to have you have a better
understanding of how ASL works.
08:14
So, envision a piano.
08:17
ASL is broken down into
many different grammatical parameters.
08:20
If you assign a different parameter
to each finger as you play the piano --
08:24
such as facial expression, body movement,
08:28
speed, hand shape and so on,
08:33
as you play the piano --
08:37
English is a linear language,
08:39
as if one key is being pressed at a time.
08:41
However, ASL is more like a chord --
08:44
all 10 fingers need
to come down simultaneously
08:48
to express a clear concept or idea in ASL.
08:51
If just one of those keys
were to change the chord,
08:57
it would create a completely
different meaning.
09:01
The same applies to music
in regards to pitch, tone and volume.
09:04
In ASL, by playing around with these
different grammatical parameters,
09:12
you can express different ideas.
09:16
For example, take the sign TO-LOOK-AT.
09:17
This is the sign TO-LOOK-AT.
09:20
I'm looking at you.
09:24
Staring at you.
09:28
(Laughter)
09:29
(Laughter)
09:33
Oh -- busted.
09:35
(Laughter)
09:38
Uh-oh.
09:41
What are you looking at?
09:45
Aw, stop.
09:49
(Laughter)
09:50
I then started thinking,
09:52
"What if I was to look at ASL
through a musical lens?"
09:53
If I was to create a sign
and repeat it over and over,
09:57
it could become
like a piece of visual music.
10:00
For example, this is the sign for "day,"
10:04
as the sun rises and sets.
10:07
This is "all day."
10:11
If I was to repeat it and slow it down,
10:16
visually it looks like a piece of music.
10:19
All ... day.
10:24
I feel the same holds true
for "all night."
10:27
"All night."
10:33
This is ALL-NIGHT,
represented in this drawing.
10:35
And this led me to thinking
about three different kinds of nights:
10:42
"last night,"
10:49
"overnight,"
10:52
(Sings) "all night long."
10:57
(Laughter)
11:00
I feel like the third one has
a lot more musicality than the other two.
11:07
(Laughter)
11:11
This represents how time
is expressed in ASL
11:13
and how the distance from your body
can express the changes in time.
11:16
For example,
11:20
1H is one hand, 2H is two hand,
11:22
present tense happens closest
and in front of the body,
11:25
future is in front of the body
and the past is to your back.
11:29
So, the first example
is "a long time ago."
11:36
Then "past,"
11:40
"used to"
11:44
and the last one, which is my favorite,
11:46
with the very romantic
and dramatic notion to it,
11:48
"once upon a time."
11:50
(Laughter)
11:52
"Common time"
11:57
is a musical term
12:00
with a specific time signature
of four beats per measure.
12:02
Yet when I see the word "common time,"
12:07
what automatically comes to mind for me
is "at the same time."
12:09
So notice RH: right hand, LH: left hand.
12:13
We have the staff
across the head and the chest.
12:17
[Head: RH, Flash claw]
12:20
[Common time]
12:21
[Chest: LH, Flash claw]
12:22
I'm now going to demonstrate
a hand shape called the "flash claw."
12:25
Can you please follow along with me?
12:30
Everybody, hands up.
12:33
Now we're going to do it
in both the head and the chest,
12:38
kind of like "common time"
or at the same time.
12:41
Yes, got it.
12:47
That means "to fall in love"
in International [Sign].
12:49
(Laughter)
12:52
International [Sign], as a note,
12:54
is a visual tool to help communicate
12:55
across cultures and sign languages
around the world.
12:58
The second one I'd like
to demonstrate is this --
13:01
please follow along with me again.
13:04
And now this.
13:10
This is "colonization" in ASL.
13:17
(Laughter)
13:20
Now the third --
13:23
please follow along again.
13:24
And again.
13:31
This is "enlightenment" in ASL.
13:36
So let's do all three together.
13:39
"Fall in love,"
13:43
"colonization"
13:45
and "enlightenment."
13:47
Good job, everyone.
13:50
(Laughter)
13:51
Notice how all three signs
are very similar,
13:53
they all happen at the head and the chest,
13:55
but they convey quite different meanings.
13:57
So it's amazing to see
how ASL is alive and thriving,
13:59
just like music is.
14:03
However, in this day and age,
14:06
we live in a very audio-centric world.
14:09
And just because ASL has no sound to it,
14:11
it automatically holds no social currency.
14:15
We need to start thinking harder
about what defines social currency
14:19
and allow ASL to develop
its own form of currency --
14:24
without sound.
14:27
And this could possibly be a step
to lead to a more inclusive society.
14:30
And maybe people will understand
14:38
that you don't need
to be deaf to learn ASL,
14:40
nor do you have to be hearing
to learn music.
14:44
ASL is such a rich treasure
14:48
that I'd like you
to have the same experience.
14:51
And I'd like to invite you
to open your ears,
14:54
to open your eyes,
14:57
take part in our culture
14:59
and experience our visual language.
15:00
And you never know,
15:03
you might just fall in love with us.
15:04
(Applause)
15:06
Thank you.
15:08
Denise Kahler-Braaten: Hey, that's me.
15:10
(Applause)
15:12

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About the Speaker:

Christine Sun Kim - Sound artist, composer
Through visual art, composition and performance, Christine Sun Kim explores ways of transmuting sound and silence.

Why you should listen

Christine Sun Kim uses the medium of sound through technology and conceptualism in art, as it enables her to have the most direct connection to society at large.

She rationalizes and reframes her relationship with sound and spoken languages by using audience’s voice as her own, conducting a group of people to sing with facial movements (rather than sound), composing visual scores with sign language and musical symbols. These attempts are made to raise questions on ownership of sound, explore oral languages as social currency, deconstruct preconceived ideas about silence, and above all, unlearn sound etiquette.

As part of her practice, Kim borrows other people’s voices in order to have one and she does it by collaborating with artists such as Devonté Hynes, Thomas Benno Mader, Wolfgang Müller and Alison O’Daniel. Selected exhibitions and performances include: Sound Live Tokyo, Tokyo; White Space, Beijing; LEAP, Berlin; Carroll / Fletcher, London; nyMusikk, Oslo; Andquestionmark, Stockholm; Southern Exposure, San Francisco; Recess Activities, New York; Calder Foundation, New York; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Additionally, she was a recipient of Artist Residency at Whitney Museum, Haverford College, Southern Exposure, Arnolfini, University of Texas’ Visual Arts Center and Fellowship at TED and MIT Media Lab.

More profile about the speaker
Christine Sun Kim | Speaker | TED.com